Soledad O’Brien speaks at UNCW about food insecurity on college campuses

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Award-winning journalist and philanthropist Soledad O’Brien spoke at UNCW on Tuesday night about food insecurity on college campuses.

Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.

The documentary produced by O’Brien revealed 45 percent of college students report struggling with hunger.

“In a lot of schools, kids are fed kindergarten through 12. What do they think happens to those students when they go to college? They just suddenly, magically find food? They don’t,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien’s talk was held in the Burney Center as a part of UNCW’s Campus Life Leadership Lecture Series.

She shared the experiences of the four college students featured in her documentary “Hungry to Learn.” WWAY had the chance to speak with O’Brien one on one. She says what inspired her to look into food insecurity on college campuses stemmed from a conversation with a friend who worked on a university campus in New York.

“It wasn’t something I thought a lot about and then a girlfriend of mine who is a professor and helped in the journalism club. She discovered students were living in the journalism office, in fact, they were homeless,” O’Brien said. “She was surprised, we were surprised. Then there was this survey done on students self-reporting about hunger. I had thought it was a small number, sad cases of unfortunate incidents. Then I realized, in some cases, fifty…five-zero percent of students were saying they had experienced some kind of food insecurity.”

“Hungry to Learn” highlights the humiliation students experience when asking for help and the challenges of actually receiving help.

“A lot of people, they think they could identify someone who’s hungry, they could identify someone who’s in poverty, someone who’s struggling. But in our documentary where we focus on four students, you really can’t. They look like students but the added burden and the stress of having to like find food and think about food all the time is such a mental weight on them,” O’Brien said.

While the documentary wasn’t filmed at UNCW, food insecurity is something that’s impacting some UNCW students.

“They’re not going to be able to study or focus if they’re hungry and so we wanted to help provide that support to students so they can do what they’re here to do which is to focus on their studies and graduate,” UNCW Director of Student Community Engagement Jaime Russell said.

The Hawk’s Harvest Food Pantry opened in the spring of 2019 following Hurricane Florence. Just last semester, Russell says the pantry distributed more than 6,500 pounds of food.

However, the Hawk’s Harvest collects and distributes more than food. Students can grab feminine hygiene products, deodorant, toothbrushes, and other toiletries during the “Grocery Grab” hours. Recently, Russell says they have patterned with the Diaper Bank to make diapers available for students with children. She notes that not all students are 18 years old and fresh out of high school, some have families of their own that they may be struggling to feed as well.

“We’re a very caring community here at UNCW and I think that Hawk’s Harvest is evidence of that,” Russell said. “I think to just walk in the store and see a friendly face and somebody who just wants to support you because that’s what we do.”

Hawk’s Harvest is looking to expand into a second location on campus sometime in the fall of 2023. In addition to the non-perishables on the shelves now, Russell says they hope to add refrigerated and freezer items to the pantry.

For more information on Hawk’s Harvest, including operating hours and how to donate, visit here.

Cape Fear Community College also operates a food pantry on its campus. For more information on CFCC’s pantry, visit here.

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